Tropical Vikings- The continuing hunt for Abu Sayyaf rebels on the islands of Jolo and Basilan is actually the latest battle in a war that goes back over a thousand years. The people in the Sulu islands (Jolo and Basilan being the largest) have a long and enthusiastic history of tribal wars, raiding, slaving and piracy. Think of them as tropical Vikings. The Sulu islands, in particular, lie astride trade routes between the islands that are now Indonesia to the south, and the main islands of the Philippines to the north. The Sulu tribes and pirates either extracted protection payments from passing merchants, or simply stole whatever they could catch. Unlike the Vikings, the Moros (as the Moslems of the southern Philippines came to be called) did not conquer distant lands and set up colonies. This was mainly because the Moros preferred endless feuds with other clans and tribes, rather than empire building. Unlike the Vikings, who came from chilly and inhospitable Scandinavia, the Moros already lived in a very comfortable land of tropical islands. Besides, all the neighboring areas were better organized than the Moros, and responded with devastating reprisal raids when Moro pirate attacks or slaving raids become more than an annoyance. And then there was religion.
Islam came to the southern Philippines in the late 14th century, about two centuries before the Spanish showed up further north and began converting the tribes there to Christianity. Actually, Moslem traders had been visiting the Philippines from the 13th century, but it took a while for the Islamic preachers to convert a significant number of people. But it's important to remember that the biggest thing that divides the people of northern and southern Philippines is not religion, but culture. The northerners are more peaceful, industrious and numerous. Like the Vikings, the Moros were seagoing traders, slavers and raiders. Also, like the Vikings, they were ferocious fighters, who struck unexpectedly from the sea in their swift sailing ships. The Moros also had their own version of the Viking "Berserker" (a warrior who would get so revved up that few could withstand his attack.) The Moros, who were one of the many Malay peoples in the region, operated according to the Malay term "amok" (as in "run amok.") Periodically. Moro warriors would go "juramentado" (a killing spree.) The most fierce of the Moro tribes, the Taosugs (from Jolo and surrounding islands in the Sulu Sea), made this sort of thing into a religious event by just going out looking for Christians to kill. This, of course, did not make the Moros any more popular with the more numerous Filipinos to the north. Nor did the banditry, slaving and piracy. Spanish attempts to make deals with the Sultan of Sulu (on Jolo) were not very successful either, as the Sultan didn't really control all the clans and could not halt all the attacks on Christians. The Sultan had more success arbitrating clan disputes than in stopping the raids. The Spanish were finally able to suppress most of the piracy raids when they introduced steam driven gunboats in the late 19th century.
When the United States took the Philippines from Spain in 1898, they inherited the still frosty relations between Moros and Christians. US troops fought a war against Christian and Moslem Filipinos, who wanted independence right away, and won. But while the war against the Christian majority ended in 1902, the Moro minority continued to resist until 1913. Most of the fighting against the Moros was done by Filipino Christians trained and equipped by the American army. But for three battles, in 1905, 1906 and 1913, thousands of American troops were brought in. Artillery, machine-guns and innovative American tactics eventually wore the Moros down and ended organized resistance. The ten years of war in the Philippines left 4,234 American soldiers and 20,000 Filipino fighters dead. Also killed were over 200,000 Filipino civilians. Many were deaths were due to the privation that accompanied people fleeing areas caught up in the fighting. But the Moros tended to make last stands with the fighters standing together with their women and children. Makes sense when everyone is fighting with swords and spears, but not when the other guy has machine-gun and artillery.
After 1913, there was still some banditry in Moro country, or at least more than in the rest of the country, but for the first time in history, the Moros were no longer a source of raiders, slavers and pirates.
While the Moros learned to respect American power, they still had nothing but contempt for their Christian neighbors to the north. When the U.S. agreed to grant the Philippines independence, the Moros wanted to be their own country, rather than be part of a Philippines that had a Christian majority. The Moros said so to the American colonial government, and this unwillingness to get along with the other peoples of the Philippines is the source of the continued separatist fighting in the southern Philippines.
When the Philippines became independent in 1946, the Moros were less than ten percent of the population, and steady immigration of Christians into traditionally Moro territory increased friction. The Moros often responded in the traditional way, with savage raids. Although slaving was no longer a problem, banditry was. Major Moro independence organizations, like the MILF appeared in the 1970s and began a guerilla war that continues into the 21st century. While many Moros eagerly joined the MILF, and revived the ancient raiding tradition, by the late 1990s the lack of success against the government troops and police began to have ugly side effects. Many MILF members began to break off and form criminal gangs. While the MILF was unsuccessful in establishing "liberated zones" that they could rule, they did create a lack of government control in much of the southern Philippines. The former Moro rebels formed new groups, like the Abu Sayyaf, that were more dedicated to banditry than Moro independence. Wealthy Christians were kidnapped and poor Christians were murdered in large numbers. By 2003, the kidnapping had become a national crises and the war effort shifted from the MILF to the many smaller Moro criminal gangs.
Because the Abu Sayyaf was suspected of harboring Islamic terrorists, like the al Qaeda, the government accepted help from the American CIA and Special Forces. It was not lost on the Christian Filipinos that it was the Americans who had ultimately defeated the Moros a century ago. The Tropical Vikings had returned, and so has the only force that has ever tamed them.
Skirmishing continues with MILF rebels in the south, leaving at least one rebel dead.